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‘Gaslighting, Misogyny and Marginalization’

Jody Wilson-Raybould on Trudeau’s behaviour, strategic voting, Canada’s ‘unfinished business’ and more. A Tyee interview.

Michael Harris 16 Sep

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

When the saga of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Justin Trudeau is finally told, it will not just be a melodrama of political spite and revenge, corruption or idealism.

It will be a tale of two people who got each other wrong, two solitudes that appeared to come together briefly in an inspirational first meeting in Whitehorse in 2014, and who gradually veered toward a head-on collision when the relationship moved to the political realities of Ottawa.

Wilson-Raybould, gifted daughter of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples, took Trudeau, a prince of Canadian privilege from Montreal, as a champion of transformational political change, particularly on the Indigenous file. He wasn’t.

Trudeau thought that bringing Wilson-Raybould to the Big Stage and elevating her to a position of national power would be enough. What he missed was that this strong woman, dedicated to breaking the logjam of the long-stalled Indigenous reconciliation dilemma in Canada, would never be satisfied with benign tokenism.

“When it comes to Justin Trudeau, he was not the individual that he presented to me in 2014. Back then, we talked about visions for the country, about social justice and Indigenous reconciliation. I believed he would act. Although Justin spoke a lot of words, he was not interested in following through.”

The Tyee had a wide-ranging interview with Wilson-Raybould on the publication of her new book, Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power.

The former justice minister began writing the book “in earnest” in December 2020, and sent her draft manuscript to her publisher, HarperCollins Canada, in early March 2021. There were several rounds of the original manuscript, in which Wilson-Raybould had put things down “in very stark ways.”

Although it was hard to distill the vignettes she had written down concerning her time in federal and Indigenous politics, in the end she was “proud” of the result. But it wasn’t easy to revisit the traumas and disappointments of the past.

“I like to keep my personal life personal. I was presenting myself as a reflection on politics, not writing a memoir. But I realized how much I needed to tell where I came from, my grandmother, and my family. I needed to provide those situations in meetings with the PM and other ministers, and my state of mind. It was hard, but I am happy to have revealed myself... It was a bit traumatic, but I had to record what my time in politics meant.”

Wilson-Raybould’s book includes detailed descriptions of tense meetings with the prime minister over the SNC-Lavalin affair, in which Trudeau comes off from her perspective as bullying and paternalistic. The Tyee asked if, based on her new book, it is fair to say she believes Trudeau is unfit to be prime minister?

“I can’t answer that. People can judge for themselves. What I sought to do was tell of my interactions, not just with him, but with others and how government operates. Speaking up, telling of my personal experience is important for me and others.”

The two big news stories that have come out of Wilson-Raybould’s book both relate to the SNC-Lavalin scandal, in which the prime minister was found to have improperly interfered in a criminal case against the giant Quebec engineering firm.

It has been widely reported that Wilson-Raybould was asked to lie about the matter by Trudeau. Trudeau has flatly denied that. But Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has used that line at press conferences in the ongoing federal election campaign.

“I never said that,” Wilson-Raybould told The Tyee, explaining that the feeling the PM wanted her to lie arose out of the circumstances and interactions, which she laid out very clearly in her book.

And what lie did she have the impression Trudeau wanted her to tell? She says he wanted her to accept a version of events that she does not recognize, a story of simple misunderstanding between herself and Trudeau’s then-principal secretary Gerald Butts, absent of the PM’s improper influence.

Wilson-Raybould rejects that narrative “about the breakdown of trust with Gerry Butts, that we had just experienced things differently. The PM tried to undermine my ability, and undermine the fact that I knew the law, and knew my law. He did it in an incredibly bad way. Gaslighting, misogyny and marginalization. Trying to undermine my confidence. That is the Justin Trudeau I saw through many different circumstances.”

When asked if it were possible that Trudeau didn’t know about the pressure being applied to her and her officials by others in the PMO, Wilson-Raybould was categorical.

“Knowledge or incompetence? I have no doubt that he knew about it... The PM was responsible for the actions of his office, and interactions between his office and ministers. I guess I would say this. I always take time and am always reflective. I hope Justin Trudeau has taken time to reflect on what happened.”

The second big news story coming out of the former justice minister and attorney general’s book was her request that the PM remove all obstacles in the way of an RCMP investigation into possible obstruction of justice by Trudeau himself in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

That would mean giving access to cabinet documents and nine individuals with knowledge of what happened. Trudeau has so far denied that access, as he did to the ethics commissioner during his investigation of the scandal. So does Wilson-Raybould believe Trudeau obstructed justice?

“I have given committee testimony of that not being the case. But he did violate the conflict-of-interest legislation as the ethics commissioner confirmed.”

Conservative Leader O’Toole has promised to give the RCMP full access to the relevant cabinet documents to allow them to complete their investigation. Does Wilson-Raybould believe him?

“I don’t know the answer. I don’t believe much of what all of the leaders are saying. People respond to vote-rich provinces, say what people want to hear. That’s why there is general skepticism about politics.”

Her biggest regret about how the SNC-Lavalin scandal unfolded?

“It didn’t have to be that way. Actions taken by so many people were wrong. Instead of correcting them, they kept making them worse.”

What about the Liberal party itself, apart from Trudeau. Is there anything Wilson-Raybould still admires?

“I was never a member of a political party before I joined the Liberals. I do and still do align with liberal values: equality, inclusion, social justice. A country where everyone can realize their full potential. But I can’t understand or align myself with the Liberal party under Justin Trudeau. But there are still lots of solid, caring and hardworking people in the party.”

Was Wilson-Raybould surprised by former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps writing in a column that Trudeau “should get out of the way?”

“I’m surprised to say that I can relate to anything Sheila Copps says. But I do relate to Sheila on this, whatever happens. I understand the blind, hyper-partisanship in the Liberal party, but there are already conversations about who is going to be next leader. Some don’t trust him, don’t believe him, and are wondering what they should do. There is serious reflection going on about Justin Trudeau’s leadership.”

Wilson-Raybould has dedicated her professional and political career to improving the lives of the Indigenous community. Which party has the best plan forward to accomplish that? Her answer: none offer enough.

“I don’t see any platforms working toward transformative change, which means recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights and their right to self-determination. That’s the only way to finish the unfinished business of Confederation. Justin Trudeau is the only one with a record that can be tracked. He hasn’t lived up to his promises. What we have now, is that Canadians are speaking up over the revelations of the unmarked graves. The whole subject should be elevated and that will mean people will have to lead their leaders.”

If the pollsters have it right, this election is so close that New Democrats might come over to vote Liberal to prevent Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives from winning the government. Wilson-Raybould bristles.

“I really detest the idea of strategic voting. It’s a tool the Liberals use to retain their votes. I think the reality of our electoral system, which needs reforming, causes polarization of our politics, and the entrenchment of the party system allowing partisanship to continue. Strategic voting is not democratic. Coalitions of people working together is far better. My advice for Canadians is to do what I just did. I voted for the best person in my riding, who would represent me and not their party leader.”

Wilson-Raybould came into public life on Trudeau’s commitment to do politics differently. Given everything that has happened, does she still believe that is possible?

“I absolutely do. I remain as hopeful as I was back before the 2015 election. It’s not easy to live one’s life in the public eye. Canadians have brought me through it. I am deeply honoured by their support, making me the first ever female Indigenous person in our country’s history to be elected as an Independent MP.”

Although Wilson-Raybould is not running in Election 2021, there are 75 Indigenous candidates seeking a seat in the House of Commons, the most ever in a federal election. Does the former justice minister think her high-profile story contributed to that outcome?

“Well I hope that my experience had something to do with it. I hope it encouraged people to consider getting involved in public life, at whatever level of politics, including the community level.”

After all is said and done, is Wilson-Raybould now in a good place personally?

“Yes, as much as my time in politics was a roller-coaster ride lasting six years, yes I am. It didn’t change me. I am still someone who raises her voice, and always will, to improve the lives of my people.”  [Tyee]

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